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13 October 2016, Gateway House

U.S. Elections: shifting geopolitics for West Asia

This excerpt was transcribed from The Gateway House Podcast episode, 'U.S. Elections: Trump’s down but not out' which is part of the special miniseries on the U.S. election and its foreign policy implications. In the episode, Ambassador Neelam Deo discussed the larger foreign policy implications mentioned by the presidential candidates at the second Presidential debate on Sunday night

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The following discussion was transcribed from The Gateway House Podcast episode, ‘U.S. Elections: Trump’s down but not out‘ which is part of the special miniseries on the U.S. election and its foreign policy implications.

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Virpratap Vikram Singh: Another chief point that came out in this debate was Syria and ISIS; they’ve really managed to become the centerpiece of this election, and through the course of the debate we’ve got more insight into how the candidates would deal with the ongoing situation in the region. Donald Trump not only disagreed with his running mate Mike Pence on the issue of what the U.S. should do in Syria, but he seems almost supportive of working with Russia in order to eliminate ISIS. Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, advocated the arming of the Kurds and hoped that ISIS would be out of Mosul and Iraq before she became President. Both of these situations suggest a certain change in how the U.S. will be interacting with West Asia under their various Presidencies.

Under a future President Trump, we could see an expansion in Russia’s geopolitical position in West Asia as Russia along with Syria, Iran and Turkey, amp up their efforts to wipe out ISIS and eventually are successful at it and it seems that that would result in only more conflict as then it would become the U.S. vs. Russia trying to grapple for influence in the region.

On the other hand, a future President Clinton seems to suggest a return to the U.S. policy of arming local forces, a tactic that has backfired more than a few times, and it would definitely backfire on one of the U.S.’s NATO allies – Turkey, which has a very long history with the Kurds in the region. With these kinds of possibilities coming out from the situations that were highlighted – what do you make of all of this?

Ambassador Neelam Deo: Actually, I agree with you. There will be some differences in the policies [of Trump and Clinton] towards Syria, which of course also means some differences in how the United States and its allies deal with ISIS. But we should be clear on the fact that Russia is already in the Middle East and at the same time the U.S. has already been arming the Kurds.

First of all, they created a Kurdish state within Iraq, more or less de-facto split into three parts. They have also created a de-facto Kurdish state within Syria, which is the cause of the tremendous anxiety that Turkey goes through. These two states – or state-lets as they say – have been developed and now are available to the U.S. to use as pressure points on Iran in a small way because Iran also has a Kurdish population of just around a million but who are poor and weak. But Turkey is the real issue here, because Turkey has been fighting its own Kurds for decades. Its attempts at negotiation have been given up and it is at war again with its own Kurdish population, but then that becomes a pressure point available for the U.S. to use.

The problem in Syria – to the great misfortune of the Syrian people – is that all the players have contradictory objectives. So Russia is already in and its influence has grown through its support to General Assad. Similarly, Iran is already in, also supporting Assad but fighting ISIS much more than maybe Russia has been because ISIS is really a disaffected Sunni movement at heart, born out of the dissolution of the Iraqi army when the Americans first invaded. So the emphasis of Iran and Russia is different, even though they do work together to support Assad. The objective of Turkey is entirely at odds with these, because while the Kurdish people have been used to fight ISIS and have been very brave and courageous as they traditionally are, Turkey’s objective is to keep them down and to prevent at any cost the emergence of a unified Kurdish state-let within present day Turkey borders.

The United States and its allies – some of the Europeans, specifically France and the UK – their intention was to keep Russia out, even though it was already an ally of Assad. But they also have focused on ISIS as attacks within European countries by terrorists who proclaim themselves to be allied with ISIS have increased. So right now the situation is that – to some extent, the capability and leadership of ISIS has been degraded by American, French, Russian and Iranian bombing – so these countries already have an objective together. Turkey is actually in turmoil already over its Kurdish policy as well as that coup which still remains a little bit complicated to try and understand.

President Assad has become more and more dependent on Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and Israel has not needed to do very much except keep the pot boiling. So I would say that Syrian imbroglio will continue, the tragedy that has been played out in Aleppo will probably end fairly soon with the city falling to the Syrian government forces with the assistance of Russian bombing.

In the meanwhile, the U.S.-Russia relationship has certainly suffered a great deal; Kerry has broken off talks with his Russian counterpart, the Russians have withdrawn from an agreement in the nuclear area and the situation becomes even more brittle. But the inflow of Syrian refugees into Europe has fallen by percentages.

VVS: A lot of the points that you mention seems to reflect the kind of foreign policy understanding that these candidates have. When Trump was speaking about this issue, it seemed very simplistic from his point of view, that the U.S. needs to wipe out ISIS and this is how it’s going to be done. Whereas from what you’ve laid out, it seems that Hillary’s plan is much more complex, where she’s trying to make sure they eliminate ISIS by using the local forces but at the same time keeping the pressure in that region so that they have some sort of strategic strength in the region.

So would you say that Donald Trump seems to have a very simplistic understanding of foreign policy compared to Hillary Clinton?

ND: I would agree with you. The situation is complex; it needs complex handling but that does not mean that it needs even more interference from the United States. Now that has morphed into a rivalry with Russia, even though that was not how it was earlier.

Listen to the full episode here.

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